Soil in beds and borders nearest the garden walls crumbles in my hand. Its easily worked texture is the legacy of barrowfuls of whatever organic substance was most plentiful at the time being tipped into the beds every winter for decades, perhaps centuries. Snowdrops try to colonise these wall-side borders, many of which are now grassed over. Where this special, tell-tale soil lingers beneath mossy grass, mats of young bulbils appear in February with grey-green foliage and no flowers in their first year. The well-drained, fibrous soil is perfect for them – just like woodland soil.
I encourage the snowdrops, moving around them protectively with the mower in late spring, leaving grass uncut in half-moon sweeps close to the walls. These simple February flowers, sometimes bent to the ground in the midnight frost, are precious messengers of winter’s retreat. I like to see them in their pure, green and white setting, just grass and snowdrops. On one side of the castle drive, however, they mingle with early-flowering purple and egg-yolk crocus that are in bloom during the last week of the month.
Crocus adore these first few days of the season when temperatures rise and their wide open flowers can absorb the sunshine. It’s not only flowers that respond to this warmth. The resident peahen can be found sat in a suntrap, spring feathers as glossy and perfectly coloured as any flower. She hides amongst the remnants of last year’s grasses, perfectly camouflaged and looking lazily out towards the bog garden where clumps of rushes have colonised the dampest areas.
Throughout the summer months, when I strim large swathes of the bog garden, the rushes remain untouched. I decided rushes deserved a respectful place here after reading an account of life at Rose Castle in 1480 which stated ‘…the outer court was occasionally strewn with dried peat broken into small pieces…the hall was strewn with fresh rushes’. The account records that members of staff included a butcher, miller, baker, brewer, maltster, reeve and cook. Gardeners are not mentioned here, but when I am working in boggy areas further away from the castle, I can easily imagine the cold fingers of gardeners as they collected rushes.
Until the 19th century, boggy ground was commonplace within the curtilage of the garden. In 1800, work was undertaken to rectify this by Bishop Edward Vernon who organised the planting of borders that were ‘raised in some parts by many cart loads of soil brought in from the wood’. This loamy woodland soil was no doubt formative in creating the raised areas that can be seen today in the garden, especially around the mantle walls.
Where soil with a woodland texture still lies damp rather than well-drained, snowdrops are scarce. A close relative, however, thrives where there is extra moisture. Snowflakes have larger waxy flowers that are more exotic than those of snowdrops, but more effort is required to coax them to spread into large colonies. The largest patch grows at the entrance to Rose Castle drive; it has taken more than a decade of splitting and replanting the bulbs to achieve this happily established group. Other groups of snowflakes are forming within the garden, including a cluster that has been grown from bulbs given to me by Stewart Hudson, chairman of the Dalston Gardening Club. We think these particular snowflakes may have petals with markings that are slightly different from others already established here. One thing is certain; the delicate blooms of snowdrops and snowflakes really do deserve close-up admiration of their cool, ice-proof beauty.
Queen’s counsel for February
Flowers open fully in sunshine to reveal silky petals with subtle or vivid colouring, depending on variety. Species crocus tend to have small flowers and bloom earlier, followed by large-flowered Dutch varieties with flowers in vivid colours.
Botanically known as Leucojum vernum, these spring-flowering bulbs are suited to naturalising in grassy areas where soil remains damp throughout the year. In their native habitats, they grow in moist woodlands on shaded hillsides.
Helleborus argutifolius is a tough perennial with leathery overwintering foliage. By early spring, it produces pale green, cup-shaped blooms that are sought after by flower arrangers. It is a true stalwart, thriving in a wide range of garden soils and sites.
Not as showy as peacocks, and without long tails, peahens are beautiful in their own way. Living free-range in an estate garden, they add a touch of opulence. They are friendly, full of character, a pleasure to have around, but they do require an adjusted style of gardening.
Grasses for drying
Ornamental grasses that can be cut and dried for decorations are easily raised from seed. Now is a good time of year to peruse catalogues or websites for seeds of Lagurus ovatus (hare’s tail grass), Hordeum jubatum (squirrel tail grass), and Brizia media (quaking grass).